West Ham United 2 (2) Ipswich Town 0 (1)

West Ham United edged a step closer to the Premiership with a fantastic 2-0 victory over Ipswich Town that secured our place in the First Division Play-off final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on May 29.


On a simply amazing night at Upton Park, second half strikes from Matthew Etherington and Christian Dailly overturned a 1-0 deficit from the first leg at Portman Road three days ago and set up a mouth-watering winner-takes-all clash against London rivals Crystal Palace in Cardiff a week on Saturday.


It means that Hammers are now just 90 minutes away from the golden jackpot of an instant return to the Premiership after a testing year in the Nationwide First Division.


And, should they achieve their ultimate aim in 10 days time, it will be nothing less than fully deserved for the club's supporters, who joined forces to create one of the most memorable nights in recent Upton Park history.


After Alan Pardew had called for a carnival atmosphere inside the Boleyn Ground, the 35,000 capacity crowd responded with a quite phenomenal level of vocal backing from start to finish. And, more importantly, the players themselves answered the rallying call with perhaps the performance of the season to turn the two-legged tie on it's head.


While Ipswich were forced into one change after defender John McGreal was forced out with a calf injury, Pardew had kept faith with the same 11 that started Saturday's first leg at Portman Road - and in the same formation, as Marlon Harewood continued on the right side of midfield and Bobby Zamora partnered David Connolly up front.


No doubt spurred on by the post horn gallop, fireworks and rousing reception that greeted their entrance on to the field, Hammers began on the front foot and might have opened the scoring inside 30 seconds, when Connolly released Zamora down the right, but the former Tottenham striker unfortunately ran the ball out of play as he raced into the penalty area.


Just moments later, the bubble almost burst with an almighty bang, though, as the visitors wasted a glorious chance to take the lead. A looping ball over the defence sent first leg match-winner Darren Bent through on goal, but the England under-21 striker dragged his shot wide of the target - much to the relief of goalkeeper Stephen Bywater and his defence.


After surviving that early scare, though, Hammers soon picked up their momentum again and, after dominating proceedings from then on, it was only luck and the form of Town goalkeeper Kelvin Davis that kept the scores level before half-time.


First Steve Lomas crashed a volley against the bar after just six minutes, then Zamora saw his point-blank header somehow tipped round by Davis after Tomas Repka and Connolly had combined to create an excellent chance out of nothing.


Captain Dailly had the crowd off their seats in the 20th minute when he unleashed a rasping 30-yard drive that Davis palmed wide, while Zamora was denied again two minutes later when he headed Etherington's cross just inches wide.


Hammers finished the half on top without creating any further clear-cut chances, but the interval certainly didn't halt their momentum, as they began the second half in a positive, attacking mood again and made the vital breakthrough just five minutes in.


After Michael Carrick had seen a corner kick cleared into the Bobby Moore stand lower tier by an Ipswich defender, the classy midfielder was given another opportunity to kick from the right-hand side and this time fed the ball short to Etherington, who cut in to the corner of the penalty area and unleashed a blistering shot that flew past Davis into the top left-hand corner of the net.


Pardew followed that by introducing the aerial threat of Brian Deance just eight minutes later - Bobby Zamora making way for the veteran striker - and the move almost paid off immediately as a deep Etherington cross was nodded down by Deane into the path of Connolly, who attempted to convert with a first-time volley but connected too early as the ball bounced up and ended up slicing the ball out for a goal-kick.


Just a few moments later, the Republic of Ireland international wasted an even greater chance to hand his side the crucial two-goal lead. After Harewood had raced from the halfway line and provided a perfectly-weighted pass, Connolly cleverly chipped the ball over the diving Davis but watched on in agony as it narrowly cleared the crossbar and landed on the roof of the net.


At that point, Hammers fans could have been forgiven for thinking that they might be made to pay for such profligacy. However, with just 20 minutes remaining, their very own Captain Courageous came up trumps. Etherington's corner from the left actually struck the Scottish defender in the stomach before landing at his feet and he had just about enough strength left to send a low shot through the crowd and into the far corner of the net.


It was another fully deserving scenario for the former Dundee United, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers defender, who had to face some harsh criticism from his own supporters not so long ago but has not once tried to hide and has always given nothing less than 100% when pulling on the claret and blue shirt.


After popping up to help out the strikers, Dailly spent the remaining quarter of the game defending stoutly to ensure his side didn't throw away their lead in the closing stages, although the visitors did actually come within inches of sending the tie into extra-time, when Westlake chested the ball down on the edge of the penalty area and crashed a stunning volley against the angle of post and crossbar.


Thankfully, Hammers held firm after a couple of late corners had hearts in mouths, and the final whistle led to the kind of scenes all too rarely witnessed at Upton Park in recent years.


Having led his troops  back out on the pitch to say thank you to for the tremendous support, though, Pardew made sure nobody left the stadium under any illusions about the situation.


The job isn't done yet and, with former Hammers favourite Iain Dowie hoping to complete his own fairy-tale ending at Selhurst Park, the trip to Wales next week is likely to one of the toughest encounters faced this season. With 30,000 West Ham fans helping to lift the roof of the Millennium Stadium, though, anything is possible…


by Danny Francis